Why Mike Riley’s VAR admission is no surprise, yet remains equally worrying for football

Why Mike Riley’s VAR admission is no surprise, yet remains equally worrying for football

Featured in the Raumdeuter Online Magazine – Edition #15

Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has been a talking point all throughout the summer leading into the Premier League campaign, and since the football kicked off seemingly a headline-grabber each and every week. Brought in to eradicate doubt and controversy, it seems to have generated more than it has solved.

As such, it comes as little surprise when Premier League referee chief Mike Riley admitted that there already have been four VAR mistakes in the top flight already. That’s the equivalent to one VAR error in every single game week.

Continue reading “Why Mike Riley’s VAR admission is no surprise, yet remains equally worrying for football”

The European Clubs’ Association is right with its warning of big league dominance in Europe

The European Clubs’ Association is right with its warning of big league dominance in Europe

Featured in the Raumdeuter Online Magazine – Edition #14

Following a meeting of representatives of many of Europe’s biggest clubs in Geneva, strong words of warning were issued to the continent’s big five leagues over their growing dominance. The European football landscape is very much being dictated by these five continental superpowers, and they were right to receive a sharp reminder of their ever-increasing power.

Much of the ECA meeting saw smaller clubs and leagues expressing a fact that the current one-sided shift to a big five monopoly over European football would not be allowed to go unchecked. Reforms to the UEFA structure are set to be in place by 2022, later than the December 2019 deadline that had been previously discussed earlier in the year. Chairman of the European Clubs’ Association (ECA), Andrea Agnelli, ended the two-day meeting by explaining reforms to the UEFA structure are set to be in place by 2022, later than the December 2019 deadline that had been previously discussed earlier in the year.

Continue reading “The European Clubs’ Association is right with its warning of big league dominance in Europe”

With the increased introduction of VAR, is it time that the offside rule got an overhaul?

With the increased introduction of VAR, is it time that the offside rule got an overhaul?

Football’s Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system allows for crucial decisions within the live game of football to be made by reviewing replays and seeing incidents from angles not able to seen in the moment by the referee.

Naturally, this can put an end to clear and obvious errors – the reason the system was introduced in the first place – and in a game as financially lucrative as football, eradicating these errors has always been high on the agenda.

However, it has also thrown up one other unintended issue; or perhaps, more aptly, just an unusual situation.

Due to the system utilising replays, and allowing referees in charge of the VAR system – and the referee at pitchside if he wishes – it means that plays can be slowed down and paused.

This for one particular offence – the offside – the system can almost be too accurate. Now, we are finding goals can be disallowed by attackers having strayed fractions of millimetres ahead of the defence in an attack.

Yes, technically, that attacker is offside in that situation. By the laws of the game, should any part of an attacker’s body with which the ball can be legally played be offside, then the player is offside.

However, in many ways, with how accurate the VAR system can be for these calls, it severely damages the role of the striker, especially those whose entire play style relies on hanging on the shoulder of the final defender. It becomes near impossible to slip in behind the defence without ensuring they start a yard back just in case.

As such, it’s perhaps time for a rethink of the offside ruling.

Nothing drastic needs done. Its a system that works, and its a system that is well understood by players and fans alike nowadays.

However, it is weighted heavily in the defender’s favour already. With the introduction of VAR, that defender advantage has become so strong in comparison it is arguably unfair.

It would be a simple fix too.

Rather than arguing offside is the second even a fraction of a player’s boot, knee, etc. has strayed beyond, we argue that a player is offside if say 50% of a player’s body is beyond the defensive line.

Its still therefore an easy call for a linesman to make – in some ways arguably an even easier one, as they’re less likely to be obstructed by another player for tight calls – and would put an end to a lot of the controversy.

Attackers suddenly have an incentive to make breaking runs and movement becomes important once again, whilst defenders are still not at a significant disadvantage nor is the offside trap tactic ruined.

Instead, you get a way to end the continued controversy of the ‘tight offside call’, something that has been the bane of players, clubs and fans throughout season after season and will continue to do so, whilst still not hampering the defence’s abilities to play smartly too significantly.

Referees and assistant referees aren’t going to receive quite so much abuse, because its a lot harder to argue against a call when a player is more than half of their body beyond the defender then it is if half of their shoulder is.

It’s not a perfect system, but it would prevent so much of the controversy and difficulty over offside calls.

It would make VAR quicker and more streamlined too – one of the biggest complaints of the system – because it would never take three or four minutes and countless replays to tell if a player has more than half of his body beyond the defensive line. It would be something you can tell from a quick glance usually, almost always within one or two replays.

No system with offside and VAR will be perfect, but at least in my opinion, changing it up would be far better than the future outlook that awaits us: continuous arguments over millimetre offside calls that are difficult even to see on the replays.

It’s hard to be unclear as to whether half a person is beyond someone. Not so for the slightest tip of a boot.

Bielsa’s sportsmanlike call was commendable, but it’s all avoided if teams play to the whistle

Bielsa’s sportsmanlike call was commendable, but it’s all avoided if teams play to the whistle

Play to the whistle. It’s one of the most common phrases uttered in most young footballers’ careers, but rarely does it have so much relevance as in Leeds United’s 1-1 draw with Aston Villa at the weekend.

After Jonathan Kodjia went down under an innocuous-looking coming together with Leeds defender Liam Cooper, Aston Villa looked to their opponents to put the ball out of play.

However, they didn’t.

They had no reason to. After all, Kodjia was not down with a head injury, so it ultimately fell on the referee to decide to stop the play. Leeds were not mandated to put the ball out of play, and referee Stuart Attwell didn’t blow his whistle.

Unfortunately, what then sparked from that moment was arguably some of the most dramatic six minutes in this Championship season.

Tyler Roberts received the ball out wide and, in a moment that was largely to blame for most of the fury and reaction to follow, appeared to dummy putting the ball out into touch and instead fed Mateusz Klich.

The Aston Villa players, and a number of the Leeds players, stopped dead. They assumed the ball was going out of play, only to be caught off guard by Roberts’ ball forwards. Klich drove into the box, taking full advantage of the opposition defenders being flat-footed, curling an effort into the corner of the net and sparking absolute chaos.

In an already passionate encounter, tempers exploded as both sets of players collided in an all-out brawl of shoving, shouting and shirt-pulling that went on for a lengthy period. The two benches flooded their technical areas and plenty more vocal disputes raged between the two sets of playing staff, with gestures and gesticulations aimed at one another.

In the midst of the melee, Patrick Bamford embarrassingly went down clutching his face, insinuating contact from Anwar El Ghazi, despite replays showing a distinct lack of contact to the Leeds man’s head.

When Attwell finally regained control of the chaos, some five minutes after Klich’s initial strike, there was more of a twist in the tale for Aston Villa, who saw a straight red shown to bewildered El Ghazi as part of the punishments issued.

There was now a serious problem. Aston Villa were already incensed, screaming injustice at the Klich goal, and now found themselves a man down too after the El Ghazi dismissal. As far as they were concerned, they were now a goal and a man down from the unsportsmanlike behaviour of their opponents.

Step in Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa, who took the high road and should be massively applauded for it. Ordering his men to give Aston Villa a goal from the restart, he watched as Albert Adomah dribbled past the largely stationary (we’ll come to that in a second) Leeds players and slotted the equaliser into the net.

It was a bizarre moment watching one team intentionally allow their opponents a goal.

Well, all but Pontus Jansson. From the moment Bielsa ordered his men to give back a goal as a way of evening the contest and cooling the controversy, the Swedish centre back was apoplectic.

He spent the entire restart and Adomah’s run towards him gesticulating furiously at his manager and teammates, furious at the idea of gifting a goal away, and even went so far as to try to tackle Adomah. The Aston Villa man shrugged him off, but naturally once the equaliser was in the net, round two of the handbags sparked.

Jansson’s teammates chastised him for his actions – and I imagine even further chaos would have broken out had he actually denied the goal – but you can almost understand his reaction.

Post match he blamed his competitive spirit as a centre back wanting to protect the clean sheet, but his reaction does still make some sense.

It’s farcical to be told there, in a game so desperately important to your season and faint chance of still achieving automatic promotion, to gift away a vital goal. Added in that Leeds hadn’t actually been required to put the ball out, and in the heat of the moment you can understand his unwillingness to go along with Bielsa’s sportsmanlike solution to the conflict.

At the end of the day, the actions and decision of Bielsa deserve praise as sportsmanlike of the highest order, but truthfully it wasn’t something he had to do.

I understand Aston Villa’s fury, especially seeing as they’d just moments early put the ball out of play for a Leeds injury, but Kodjia wasn’t down with any kind of injury that dictates the stoppage of play.

As such, as we said in the beginning, you play to the whistle. Until that ball goes out in touch, or Attwell raises the whistle to his lips, it’s their duty as players to keep playing.

Should Roberts have done what he did? No. Categorically, if he was looking to play it along the line towards Klich then he should have done that, not slowed initially and looked as if he was going to play it out. That much was unsportsmanlike behaviour, but all of the controversy and chaos that followed is avoided if the Aston Villa players continue playing until it goes across that white line.

Ultimately, Bielsa took the moral option and restored order to a situation, but it really cannot be understated that he really did not have to. It shows his character in such an important game, with three points vital to his team, that he’d be willing to demand such a response from his players, but it was a situation entirely avoidable by one of the most basic principles of football; playing to the whistle.

Where did it all go wrong for Huddersfield Town this season?

Where did it all go wrong for Huddersfield Town this season?

As the full time whistle blew at Selhurst Park, with Crystal Palace winning 1-0 and results elsewhere going against them, Huddersfield Town knew that nothing but an injury time Brighton goal against Southampton would save them. It didn’t come, and they became the first side relegated from the Premier League this season.

In truth, the result was already known weeks ago. It was a matter of when, not if, Huddersfield went down.

In the end, Jan Siewert’s men went down after 32 games, equalling an unwanted record with Derby County as the earliest gameweek a side has been relegated from the Premier League.

But, where did it all go wrong for Huddersfield?

If you watched them against Crystal Palace, while they lacked an end product, they were clean and precise with their passing. There was an intensity from their players too, fighting for every loose ball and creating chances.

That’s been the story of the Terriers all season, too. Especially since the arrival of Siewert. They don’t play negative or bad football, yet results simply haven’t gone their way on the pitch – and there has to be a reason for that to so consistently be the case.

And there is.

One glaring issue that has blighted Huddersfield all season. Goals. Or more appropriately, a lack thereof. As one news organisation aptly described them during the match, Huddersfield are “neat, tidy and with the cutting edge of a spoon”.

They survived by the skin of their teeth last season, but this time round it just proved too much. Those in blue and white stripes simply couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net enough times, and it proved the fatal blow.

Even with the January arrival of Karlan Grant, who managed to retain the prolific nature he had displayed at Charlton in League One despite the step up to the top flight. Yet, even with the 21-year-old netting three goals in his first six Premier League games, it couldn’t single-handedly provide results.

They needed goals from across the team, as well as a bit of fortune to fall their way, which it simply didn’t. In recent games, when tides looked just like they might be turning, late goals and bad mistakes ultimately cost them and snatched vital points away from their grasp.

Huddersfield just ended up finding themselves out of their depth this season, and couldn’t be kept afloat by Siewert.

Now, the club must look to the future and attempt the difficult task of bouncing straight back in what is an ever more competitive and challenging Championship.

And even that plan looks to have cracks appearing in it. When Siewert was brought to The John Smith’s Stadium on a two-and-a-half year deal, the former Borussia Dortmund coach wasn’t entirely there just to perform miracles.

There was an element of planning for the future in the appointment of the 36-year-old manager. Should Huddersfield have gone down, as they now have done, there was a hope that the young manager could help rebuild and drive that bounce back.

Yet, reports are now emerging that Siewert could be facing an exit from Huddersfield just a few months into his time there. His hard line approach, and apparent decision to drop regular starters with little explanation, has led to a number of complaints above the manager’s head, and may well force the Terriers board into re-evaluating their future plans with Siewert.

The German hardly has the record to back him up, either, having lost eight of his first nine games at the helm. Those results on paper don’t show the marked improvement Huddersfield had in their style of play, but at the end of the day football is a results business.

Goals were what cost Huddersfield their Premier League place, and now a rift behind the scenes may hamper any pre-existing plans to rebuild and bounce back.

It could well be a tough few months for Huddersfield, and may not be a much more enjoyable season next time out in the Championship, either.

John Barnes is right in saying that to tackle racism in football, you must fix it in wider society

John Barnes is right in saying that to tackle racism in football, you must fix it in wider society

Racism shouldn’t exist in football. No discrimination should. That much goes without saying, and yet as seen when England faced Montenegro in Podgorica on Monday, it still very much does even at the highest levels of the game, and is the result of a much wider societal issue.

I took genuine time in debating whether or not to write this article. In truth, I actually didn’t want to at first.

However, racism has once again reared it’s ugly head and become such a major issue this week in football that it feels wrong to ignore. And ignoring it would be part of the problem, too.

Then former England international John Barnes came out and gave his thoughts on the issue, and spoke with huge amounts of sense and perspective given to the problem. His statements weren’t reactionary from the Montenegro game – as I hope this article too is not – and instead tried to refocus the attention that match caused back onto tackling the wider problem; racism not just in football, but in wider society – because, ultimately, that is where it all stems from.

Now, I know I am hardly the authority on racism in football. I’m a white guy with virtually no conceivable footballing ability – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all look at and consider the potential solutions to combating this inherent problem that spoils what is a wonderful game.

If we look away from the problem, or are too scared to approach it head-on and debate and consider genuine solutions, then we do nothing to help improve the current situation.

Football should be for everyone, and that extends not just to racism but all kinds of discrimination. It has no place in the modern game – and we should all be seeking to eradicate it.

This is where I think Barnes has it right. The racism that was on display in Podgorica, and has been on display at grounds around the world (including in England this season) does not suddenly manifest in people once they walk through those turnstiles.

Barnes told BBC Sport: “It can’t be tolerated but we’ve got it the wrong way around. You can’t get rid of it in football before you get rid of it in society.

“Try to figure out a way to stop people wanting to boo because someone is black. Let’s look at what’s going on in society and try to tackle it.”

And that’s where FIFA, as well as the governing bodies, national associations and clubs themselves, come into the matter.

Fines simply don’t work. We all understand this – it’s a fact that’s been proven time and time again by the fact racism is still very much alive in many stadiums around the continent.

You can fine an association or a club, but at the end of the day that money doesn’t come out of the wallets of the racists that brought about the fine, and so its simply not going to make them change their ways.

However, the other extreme end of the spectrum I continually see being banded around is this idea of an ultimate punishment; expulsion from the tournament their qualifying for. In Montenegro’s case, that would be EURO 2020.

Personally (and I am aware that this is likely an unpopular opinion) I think that this is the wrong approach. While yes, it does send a strong message to the racists, it also hugely penalises the players and innocent fans of those countries.

I don’t believe every person in Montenegro is a racist. I don’t believe every person in that stadium in Podgorica was a racist. Nor do I believe that the majority of those players on that pitch representing Montenegro are racist.

Yet, they would also lose out with expulsion. Badly.

They would see all of their efforts, in all of their qualifying games, scrubbed from the records because of the actions of a minority – a repugnant, vocal minority, yes – but still a minority.

There, instead, needs to be a middle ground. And there is one, that is already possible with the current legislation in place: the stadium ban.

It’s what Raheem Sterling called for following the England game on Monday, and I do believe it to be the most logical and impactful way of punishing countries and clubs whose fans display any kind of discriminatory behaviour.

The reason for that is simple. It still retains a powerful message, that if your supporters are incapable of being respectful and accepting of all people equally within football, no matter race, sexuality or anything else, well then simply you won’t be allowed any supporters present. Games can even be played at neutral venues, or back in the country of the opposition side instead.

It forces that country to make changes beyond just football. If you want supporters back in your grounds, then you need to prove clearly that steps – and more crucially, actual progress – is being made off the pitch. Tackle discrimination, then you can return to watching your team play.

If they show no signs of improving, then they’ll have no chance of getting back into their grounds to watch their team. If that means for 10 years, the fans are banned from watching their side, then so be it, but you would almost certainly start to see change – and at a societal level too, as Barnes is calling for.

At the end of the day, football fans want to watch football. The clue is in the name.

If a generation grows up not being able to watch their national team beyond on the TV screens because of racism, knowing that to get it back they cannot be racist, then there is a real reason for them to change.

It’s not the fastest solution, but its the one with the most long-term impact.

It also doesn’t hurt the players, and I do believe that to be another key issue to be considered when calling for the expulsion of a team.

Majority, if not all, of those players on the Montenegrin side against England on Monday were likely not racists. Racism in football these days, at the higher levels, largely (though definitely not exclusively) comes from the terraces rather than the pitch.

There are still players that do use disgusting discriminatory language and gestures, yes, but they are becoming fewer and fewer.

That is because there are real, firm punishments for players caught doing so. Lengthy bans can come for such incidents, and they should be made even tougher. Reporting of these incidents is becoming easier and more common too, and that needs to continue to improve.

With player-to-player abuse, it’s easier to tackle because you can narrow down and target the guilty individual. That means that the rest of the players on that team shouldn’t suffer, if they have partaken in any kind of racial abuse themselves; only the guilty player or players.

Going back to team expulsion, that’s why I don’t agree with it as the approach going forwards. Instead, let’s weed out any racist players, and instead let those players left – who we know are not racist – still compete for their country, a source of national pride for any athlete.

If unacceptable fan behaviour means that they can only do so in empty stadiums, or away from home soil, then so be it. However, they should still have the right to pull on their national jersey all the same.

It simply comes down to perspective. It’s easy as English fans to vilify Montenegro after the blatant racism of some of their fans, and through impassioned anger call for extreme action, but it’s a matter of perspective. Innocent Montenegrin fans and players that are not racist – and there are many of those that likely exist – would rightly feel hard done by.

Chelsea fans had a racism scandal earlier this season. I don’t think the rest of Chelsea supporters would feel particularly kindly towards the idea of a few people’s actions getting them expelled from the Premier League. It won’t even cross the topic of conversation, and yet it is at its heart the exact same situation. But, being an English club side in the top-flight, it comes with a very different inherent perspective when people look at the situation.

There isn’t a magic fix to racism in football. Nor an easy solution to be found, as much as I wish that there was, and there will sadly always be a handful of idiots that think it is okay to use discriminatory language, gestures or behaviour towards others.

However, there are certainly ways that the situation can be improved, and punishments that can be brought in to offer a real deterrent, and look to help force change, whilst still taking into reasonable consideration those who are innocent to the problem.

Yet, at the end of the day, with all that set aside, and as John Barnes said, football’s problem with racism cannot be fixed before it is tackled in wider society.

As I said earlier in this article, racism doesn’t manifest itself at the turnstile. It’s already in the fans before they enter.

So, if we are serious about putting an end to the problem, then we need to address the problem far beyond the football stadium.

Fabian Schar’s head injury v Georgia demonstrates football’s glaring issues regarding injury protocols

Fabian Schar’s head injury v Georgia demonstrates football’s glaring issues regarding injury protocols

It doesn’t take a medical expert to understand that there should be little messing around when it comes to serious head injuries in football. For example, should a player be knocked unconscious after a clash of heads, it’s probably not best he continues playing.

Yet, for Newcastle’s Swiss international Fabian Schar, that very situation did happen over the weekend.

The central defender suffered a nasty clash of heads with Georgian defender Jemal Tabidze as both players challenged for the ball early in the first half, and the Premier League centre back was left visibly unconscious.

Thankfully, the players around Schar – from both teams, it should be added – were quick to rush to his aid. Opposition midfielder Jano Ananidze even went as far as to reach into Schar’s mouth to ensure the 27-year-old did not choke on his own tongue.

Luckily for the Newcastle defender, after some treatment from the Swiss medical team, he had regained consciousness and was looking in better shape.

However, he still admitted after the match that he couldn’t remember anything from the incident and was still feeling some residual effects of it.

“It looks awful, I can’t remember anything,” Schar told Swiss newspaper Blick.

“I was to for a few seconds. My skull is still humming. And I’ve got a neck ache and a bruise on my forehead.”

Despite all this, Schar was incredibly given the all clear by the Swiss medical staff and allowed to return to the field of play, finishing the entire match for his side – who won 2-0 in the end.

In a modern sporting world where people are all too aware of the serious dangers head injuries can cause, particularly concussion injuries and those from a loss of consciousness, it was frankly reckless to allow Schar back onto the field of play.

Unsurprisingly, the decision has led to a lot of criticism, with brain injury charity Headway even calling for a UEFA investigation into the matter.

However, the issue is endemic of a problem with modern football, that just simply seems to be behind the times in terms of combating head injuries and the associated risks and problems.

Rugby, a much more physical contact sport, has concussion substitutions and significant and thorough protocols that must be adhered to in regards to even a suspected concussion. Yet, football does not.

There are FIFA guidelines, but it appears as if these are mere suggestions rather than strictly enforced and adhered-to principles.

Schar’s injury is not the first case of football’s lax rules surrounding head injuries rearing its head at a top level either; and more scarily, likely won’t be the last.

The 2018 World Cup in Russia had its own head injury controversy when Moroccan international Nordin Amrabat suffered what appeared clearly to be a concussion after a very heavy collision between his head and the turf. Visibly dazed and unaware of what was going on around him, he was substituted in the match thankfully – but then returned to the field of play five days later, sporting nothing more than a rugby scrum cap (which, incidentally, he then removed during the game in frustration).

Football seems to have an endemic problem with combating serious head injuries and working out appropriate ways to ensure player safety is the upmost priority.

I don’t necessarily think it’s intentional negligence from the football governing bodies, but rather a lack of needed consideration on the matter. Fixing football head injury protocol is hardly a glamorous, headline-grabbing action – despite how important it actually is – and therefore FIFA and its executives are much more focused on commercially-driven, flashy issues such as expanding World Cups and reworking major tournaments.

Hopefully the level of outcry and attention the Schar incident has received will force through necessary change to protect the safety of players involved in football. However, if it doesn’t, then it’s a real worry what would actually need to happen for change to come about.

In Schar’s case, some crucial fast-thinking from his fellow players on the pitch and good luck meant he came out the other side of the nasty collision relatively unscathed, but that may not necessarily be the outcome next time round.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to something like that to see football fix its currently woeful head injury protocols.